An Interview with Natalie Coughlin

Photo:  Aaron Okayama

Before becoming a 12-time Olympic medalist, three-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year, and role model for young swimmers globally, Natalie Coughlin was a Golden Bear. Now at 33, Coughlin has competed in three Olympic games and has set numerous world and Olympic records, among adding University of California, Berkeley alumni to her hefty list of achievements and distinctions. 

In April, Natalie took a break from training for the 2016 Rio Olympic games to enjoy a cup of tea with Caliber Magazine. 


Caliber: What was your major at Cal and what made you choose coming to Cal?

Natalie: I grew up in the area, so I wanted to go to a school in California, and one that had a good swim program as well as good academics. I really thought UCLA, but once I met Terry--the women’s coach at Cal--and the girls and the team, I just felt most at home with that team, and the campus. Everything just fit. I can’t verbalize it beyond that it felt like home. 


Caliber: What about it felt like home, especially since Cal’s such a big campus? 

Natalie: I think the fact that I really fit in with the swim team, mainly. You spend so many hours with those people. Early mornings, late nights, travel. You really have to clique with them, because it will make your life hell if you don’t get along. Or if you don’t fit in. The campus was also so beautiful. I love the fact that it is a big school, but it doesn’t feel like a big school. I was always amazed when you would walk across campus and however many thousands of students there are now, you always see the same people. So you have your own groups within this massive place, and it just has a great energy. There’s ton of diversity, it’s not a sterilized campus like some other places and I really like that. 


Caliber: What were the highlights of your time at Cal? What would you have changed or done differently? 

Natalie: I majored in psychology and I chose that just because I took some psychology classes in high school and really loved that major. It just spoke to me. But I’m one of those people who easily could’ve majored in ten different things. Towards the end, I really fell in love with linguistics and I wanted to double major, but my senior year was the same year as the 2004 Olympics so I didn’t have the time to double major. I just needed to graduate and focus on my athletics. I absolutely loved a lot of my classes. I loved the linguistics classes, the plant bio classes I took, all the things you have to take for psych.

Caliber: How did your time at Cal help you prepare for post-graduation and life as an athlete? Any ideals or values? 

Natalie: It’s really hard to say, because unlike most people my age, I never left. I’m still training here at Cal. I kinda feel like I’m stuck here in college, in the greatest way. But I feel like it was great going to Cal because you had to work for what you achieved. You don’t just get to show up and put a smile on and get an A. You have to really work for your grades, and it’s tough here. It’s really tough. You have some really smart people here. It challenged me in ways that I wasn’t challenged before, and I really appreciated that. 

Photo:  Aaron Okayama

Caliber: How is it different training without being a student? 

Natalie: After the last Olympics in London, I started training with the men’s team just to mix it up. I needed a change and there are more older swimmers, post-graduate swimmers on the men’s team so I started training with the spring group there. So that’s different. I’m the only female. 


Caliber: How is that?

Natalie: I love it. The personality of my crew is perfect for me. It’s very testosterone-driven. It’s very competitive. 

It’s very, very aggressive. And I’ve always been that way. I have people in my group that are training for the exact same events that I’m training for, and so it gets us focused on similar goals. When I was with the women it was just different. We didn’t really have different groups, we all just trained together and you just kind of figure out your direction within the group. Which was awesome, but after twelve years I just needed to mix it up. 


Caliber: So it’s been a good experience?

Natalie: I love it. I think they look at me is an older sister. Fortunately, I have a juvenile sense of humor so I can fit in with them. There’s a lot more farting in that group, so that’s something I had to get used to!


Caliber: What is it like training for the Olympics?

Natalie: It’s great. I’m in the water 8 times a week; I’m in the gym 4 times a week. I’m [at Cal] 6 days a week in some combination of gym and swim. Beyond that, it’s just taking care of myself and having a good diet, plenty of rest, all of that stuff. That really adds up to a full-time job. As I’ve gotten older, I need more and more recovery time. So that’s a really big piece that I really took for granted four or five years ago. I wasn’t really focused on my recovery, and I was training myself like I did when I was 18. You have to make some changes.

Photo:  Aaron Okayama

C: What are some of the worst parts of being a swimmer?

N: Getting in cold water! It never gets easy. We have to train quite a bit for swimming, we don’t really take breaks. We train 50 weeks out of the year. You have to train multiple times a day, so before school and after school. Since I still train with the college team, that means getting up at 6am, so really early mornings in a cold pool never gets easy. 


C: When you do get one of those elusive breaks, what do you like to do for fun? 

N: Being that I spend so much time here, we have such a great food scene in Berkeley. And after college, I really got into cooking quite a bit. Once I moved to Lafayette, that extended to gardening so I have a massive garden and chickens. We are just now adding bees.


C: What’s your favorite restaurant in Berkeley, since the food scene is so important to you? 

N: Ramen Shop, although I guess that’s technically Oakland. And then Gather, I love Gather. It’s so good. It’s mostly vegan, but you can still get cheese and meat on certain things. I didn’t even realize it was vegan until I read a couple articles about it. But yea, it’s really really good. 


C: What’s your favorite thing to order?

N: The vegan charcuterie. It’s their signature dish and it’s this beautiful long plate with four little bites. And it’s whatever’s in season. And they do things that you would never do in your own kitchen, like a smoked watermelon foam or weird gastronomy things that take so much effort and are so creative. I really enjoy it. 


C: Do you have any advice for anybody studying at Cal or for any of our athletes?

N: For athletes out there I would say the number one thing is challenges. Setbacks or seemingly failures, anything like that, those could be learning opportunities if you look at them as such. If you take those challenges and stumbles and really evaluate how you could make yourself better, that in the long run could be the best thing. The times I’ve had the biggest challenges have been turning points in my career in the best ways. You have to have the right attitude when those come along. For the students, really enjoy your time. Take a bunch of different classes. Take classes you would never ever think you would like or want to take, just to round out things. You can be so focused on bio, but take an art class, take something outside of your subject to expose yourself to different things. You might surprise yourself with how much you enjoy it. And use all of your pass/no passes, because I didn’t and I wish I did! 

OtherKatie Berlin